“Over a hundred thousand people died today,” the character played by Michael Emerson (Lost, Person of Interest) tells us in “Wakey, Wakey,” the latest ethereal, esoteric play by Will Eno, who also directs. It’s one of several fascinating facts that the character, named only Guy, delivers from his wheelchair on the stage of the Signature Theater, often reading from note cards:
“You will produce two swimming pools’ worth of saliva in your life…Use it wisely.”
“Hearing certain words can create the realities behind those words, in the hearer, in the hearer’s body. Joy, Light …”
“They say practicing gratitude can physically change the shape of the brain, in a good way.”
Is any of this true? And why is Guy telling us this?
Afterward, I did some Googling, and sure enough:“How Expressing Gratitude Might Change Your Brain.”
I doubt my brain is going to be changed very much by “Wakey, Wakey,” but I did like it better than anything else I’ve seen by Eno, whose comic, cosmic, cryptic approach to playwriting has consistently charmed other people. Too often, I’ve found his impish sensibility grating. “The Realistic Joneses,” his only play to make it to Broadway so far, was well-acted by a stellar cast, but for me it added up to a whole that was less than the sum of its parts.
With gentle humor and a lack of fussiness, Michael Emerson manages to woo us through the deliberate vagueness, starts-and-stops, meta interruptions, of his monologue, even before we are completely certain why Guy is talking to us. There are hints from the get-go that he’s presiding over his own wake – “Wakey, Wakey,” get it? — or perhaps that he’s rehearsing for his wake:
“We’re here to say good-bye, of course– there’s always someone or something to say good-bye to, and it’s important to honor the people whose shoulders we stood upon and fell asleep against. So, yes, we’re here to say good-bye and maybe hopefully also get better at saying hello.”
It becomes irrefutably clear that Guy is dying only when Lisa (January LaVoy) arrives and her casual ministrations establish her as his caretaker (perhaps his hospice nurse.)
What fills most of the 75-minute play is what feels like Guy’s effort to fill the time, or make the most of the time, with word games, thought experiments, those facts and thoughts from the note cards. He also clicks on a remote, and we are treated
to entertaining, occasionally amusing video projections – such as animals apparently laughing.
Much of what Eno’s script is trying to induce about the celebration and uncertainty of life and death has been done better and with more clarity elsewhere, in such plays as “Every Brilliant Thing,” “Wit”…and the works of Eno’s hero, Samuel Beckett. But Eno the playwright is well served in “Wakey Wakey” by Eno the director, and by Emerson, LaVoy, and the show’s designers — Christine Jones’s simple set, including an unmoored door; David Lander’s varied lighting; Nevin Steinberg’s elaborate sound; Peter Nigrini’s fast-paced, celebratory, almost hallucinatory projections.) This is especially true at the end, or after the end — the wake. That the Signature serves up an elaborate wake, complete with balloons and bubbles, but also coffee cake and little gifts,probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it does. It’s a weird surprise, yes, but it’s also an oddly touching one, and one I appreciated. (So, ok, maybe my brain will change after all.)
Written and directed by Will Eno
Set deisgn by Christine Jones, lighting by David Lander, sound by Nevin Steinberg, projections by Peter Nigrini
Cast Michael Emerson and January LaVoy
Running time: about 75 minutes with no intermission
Wakey, Wakey is scheduled to run through April 2.